What business can learn from sports: the power of authenticity. Photo by Marcus Wright on Unsplash

THE POWER OF AUTHENTICITY

WHY BEING REAL IS REALLY IMPORTANT FOR BUSINESSES

Bastian Bergmann
Aug 17, 2018 · 5 min read

It’s the end of an admirable career and legacy. Andres Iniesta sits on the field in the famous Camp Nou after his final game for Barcelona. There’s a lot the world of business can learn from those particular moments in sports and Tim Leberecht, Co-founder and Co-CEO of The Business Romantic Society, captured the quintessential romance of Iniesta reflecting in solitude in his arena and the lessons learned for companies perfectly.

And just these past few days, another sporting event in Berlin provided a stage not only to admire the athletes performances, but for the business world to watch closely and learn. The European track and field championships perhaps served as a far better example than soccer for what could arguably be one of the most important business strategies and competitive advantages of the 21st century: authenticity. Whereas soccer players dive, argue, roll on the pitch as if they were never able to play the game ever again, and regularly provide scripted interview responses, the track and field athletes were refreshingly real. Scripted acts made way for raw emotions, competing athletes weren’t arguing to fulfill some fan base’s idea of competition, they instead celebrated their achievements together. And the hundreds of thousands of spectators in Berlin, and some millions in front of the screens at home, loved it. That should be the lesson for the business world. Don’t play an act of what you think your customers want to hear and see. Be authentic and make clear what you stand for — and then find and resonate with those customers who are longing for that particular authentic message and stance.

What does it mean to be authentic? The official definition by Merriam-Webster is something that is “not false or imitation.” But the definition in psychology, particularly in existential psychiatry, offers a deeper, more nuanced view on authenticity:

“Authenticity is the degree to which one is true to one’s own personality, spirit, or character, despite external pressures.”

The concept of authenticity has already made its way into the business world in a few critical areas. Arguably most commonly known is the art of authentic leadership. In addition to the role authenticity plays in the leader-employee relationship, it has become extremely relevant in the company-customer relationship. James Gilmore and Joseph Pine II pioneered the idea of authenticity as a competitive advantage in their book “Authenticity: What Consumers Really Want”. The core idea: customers increasingly view the world in terms of real or fake and would rather buy something real from someone genuine rather than something fake from some phony. Authenticity’s role in how customers judge an offering is as critical as price or quality. What should be alarming to businesses is a recent study conducted by Edelman, only 52% of global customers trust businesses.

Consumers do not trust the advertising industry one bit. Photo by Y U C E L on Unsplash

To make matters worse, nearly 70 percent of social media users are bothered by the use of inappropriate jargon or slang by brands. That customer sentiment comes with costly consequences: 51 percent of those customers would unfollow a brand that they found annoying on social media, and 23 percent would go as far as considering to never buy the brand’s products again. The one industry that gets slammed entirely? The advertising industry. A study done by marketing research firm Ipsos in 2015 found that only 4 percent of consumers believe the advertising industry behaves with integrity. Ouch.

The fundamental shift towards authenticity is clearly underway, and it has the power to topple even the big industry giants. Take, for example, the food industry. Emmanuel Faber, chief executive of Danone, pointed out that “consumers are looking to ‘pierce the corporate veil’ in our industry and to look at what’s behind the brand. The guys responsible for this are the millennials”, guided by an entirely new set of values and a commitment to brands with authentic products. In the context of the food industry that means: natural, simpler, or more local.

Another fascinating example: bookstores in the US. How come small independent bookstores are thriving in the age of Amazon when big chains like Barnes & Nobles have been pretty much diminished to irrelevance? The answer is authenticity.

So what should companies do? The first piece of advice would be to not try to be authentic. There’s no such thing as trying when it comes to authenticity. Instead, carefully reassess what your company, your brand, and your products are about. What are your values, your morals, your code of ethics? Define, combine, and clearly articulate these pieces in one coherent strategy, with one consistent brand voice. Additionally, ensure that people across the entire organization fully grasp these concepts, as only then will they be able to live and act by them every day — and adhering to “walk the talk” is crucial when trying to build trust with customers. IBM serves as a great example when it used values derived from its employees to dig into and sharpen IBM’s authentic identity, which played a key role in the turnaround of the company (Denise Lee Yohn’s book and related HBR piece provide this and other great examples). Still further, companies have to go above and beyond to deeply understand their customers at a level previously not believed possible. What do they need? What motivates them? What values do they hold dear? The answers to these questions lie far below the surface of what types of information companies currently leverage to engage with their customers. But it is exactly these answers that let companies connect on a human level with their customers. And how can a brand be more authentic than speaking to us as the person we are, instead of a vague image of one in a million consumers?

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